Israel and Russia: Trade and restive Arab world outweigh differences on Iran

As Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Israel, burgeoning technology cooperation and a shared concern about Islamic extremism seem to be overtaking a history of poor relations.

Jim Hollander/REUTERS
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak after delivering their joint statements following their meeting in Jerusalem June 25.

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Israel today for a two-day visit that publicly emphasizes the dramatic reconciliation and galloping economic cooperation between Moscow and Jerusalem. In private, it likely featured some harsh words between Mr. Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Kremlin's political support for Syria and Iran.

Experts say that the geopolitical differences between Russia and Israel are not as deep as many people believe. With the exception of sharp disagreement over what to do about Iran's alleged drive for nuclear weapons, differences are greatly overshadowed by a growing array of commonalities.

Topping that list is a shared sense that Russia and Israel alone fully understand the menace of Islamist extremism. Israel believes it confronts extremism on a daily basis, and Putin sees it as a serious threat to Russia's territorial integrity emanating from the restive northern Caucasus region, whose population is mainly Sunni Muslim. Both feel increasingly isolated in the Middle East, with Egypt's new Muslim Brotherhood president hinting that he might revise his country's treaty with Israel, and Russia facing unprecedented hostility from Turkey and the Arab world over its continued support of Syria's strongman Bashar al-Assad.

"The worse Russia's relations with the Arab world, the better they will be with Israel," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal.

"Russia now finds itself at odds with almost all the Arab countries over Syria, and this could be a long-term trend. Syria is the last Russian client state inherited from the Soviet Union, and it's probably not going to last. New rulers will be far more mistrustful of Russia, and if they are Islamists the feelings will be mutual. At least when they're talking about the threat of radical Islam, Putin will feel mentally very close with Netanyahu," he says.

Tourism, trade boost relationship

Putin's first stop after arriving in Israel today was the dedication of a monument to Soviet Red Army forces killed in World War II in Netanya. Putin told a crowd of about 600 people that the double-winged white dove erected by Israel "symbolizes the triumph of good and peace. May these values always serve as the basis for friendship between our nations."

Since the collapse of the USSR, the Russian narrative about World War II – that the Red Army liberated eastern Europe from Naziism – has been painfully challenged by many former allies whose new version of history sees the arrival of Soviet forces as the beginning of a new occupation.

"Israel is one of the few countries in the world that fully backs the Russian view on World War II, so for Putin the symbolism here is very important," says Dmitry Maryasis, an expert with the Israeli Studies Department of the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. "The role of the Red Army in liberating Europe is not often celebrated these days, so Russians will receive this signal very warmly."

During the cold war, the USSR supported rejectionist Arab states and the Palestinians against Israel, a position that had ideological roots in the competition between Zionism and Communism in 20th century Europe. But the ideological dimension disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emigration of more than 1 million Russian speakers to Israel in the 1990s, even before Russia's ties with authoritarian Arab states were moderated by improving economic and political ties with Israel and the West. 

"Everything has changed since the end of the USSR, and the relationship with Israel is totally transformed," says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute for Middle Eastern Studies in Moscow. "In Israel, one in seven citizens is Russian-speaking. There are now many prominent Russian-speakers, even at high levels of power, who have feelings of closeness toward Russia. In Moscow, there is no more official anti-Semitism and leaders are pragmatic. In some ways, such as the attitude toward the threat from radical Islamism, we are even closer in our views than Israel is with the US."

Trade has burgeoned; Israeli exports to Russia grew almost fourfold between 2003 and 2008, reaching $3 billion. That may not sound like much, but the areas of economic cooperation under consideration include nanotechnology, energy, and joint military projects, including the production of unmanned drone warplanes. Russia's natural gas monopoly Gazprom is eyeing offshore gas deposits in Israel, while the state-owned Russian Railroads is hoping to participate in a new Tel Aviv-Eilat high speed rail link.

Supporting the 'devil they know'

Putin later met with Netanyahu for a full discussion about Syria and Iran that both leaders characterized as detailed and friendly. Experts say that on Syria, at least, the two sides may not be all that far apart.

"Israel supports the Western position that Assad must go, while Russia has been backing Assad," says Mr. Maryasis. "But they're probably much closer than you would think. Israel is not keen to see a big mess break out on its border with Syria – along the Golan Heights – which has been relatively stable for years. Israel might actually prefer the devil it knows, Assad, to what might follow him. There is a very palpable fear in Israel that radical Islamists might follow Assad, and everything will get worse."

Likewise, experts say, Russia's occasional contacts with Islamist groups Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as its efforts to advocate for the Palestinian cause, are no longer viewed in Jerusalem as Soviet-style mischief, but merely the same sort of pragmatism practiced by other powers.

"Russia has always said that its participation is central to any future Middle East settlement, but in reality there's not much Moscow can do," says Georgy Mirsky, an expert at the Institute for World Economy and International relations, Moscow's most important official research center. "At the same time, relations with Israel are moving forward, powered by growing numbers of Russian businessmen and a flow of tourists – Russia is the second biggest source of tourists to Israel these days – and much improved dialogue on the official level."

Iran remains the single major sticking point. Experts say that Netanyahu will probably have given Putin an earful on the need for tougher sanctions and perhaps military measures to stop Iran's nuclear program, while Putin will have urged caution.

"Russia is deeply skeptical that military measures against Iran can have any lasting effect, and is very worried that a war could spread into Russia's own northern Caucasus," says Mr. Satanovsky. "Russia worries that it will cause regional disruption, refugee flows, and no one knows what else might come in the wake of an attack on Iran. This is the one big point on which Russia and Israel are doomed to disagree, and go on disagreeing." 

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